My Problems with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night

Originally published in 1934, Tender is the Night is the fourth and final novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, serving as a denouement to the era known as the Jazz Age. For many, the 1920’s were a time of carefree revels and extreme hedonism before the sobering crash of the Great Depression. It was a time of uncertainty in America, which spawned a group of expatriate writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and of course, Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby has garnered a reputation as one of the greatest American novels ever written. As a result, his other novels, such as Tender is the Night have been overshadowed by the tragic story of Jay Gatsby. I had high hopes for this work following the introduction, which said Fitzgerald himself wrote on the inscription to a copy for a friend, “If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force but this is a confession of faith.” Well, here’s my confession: I struggled to like this novel. In fact, I nearly stopped reading several times. Why did I finish this novel you ask? Well, read on as I work through what I hated about the book, and some qualities that I actually enjoyed.

Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Set mostly in the 1920’s, Tender is the Night begins with a group of friends living on the French Riviera. Their days are filled with drinking, swimming, and being glamorous. At the center of this group are a married couple, Dick and Nicole Diver. The prime example of a power couple (they even refer to themselves as “Dicole” at one point), they are the envy of all their friends who worship the ground they walk on. The novel begins with a young American actress named Rosemary Hoyt, just days away from her eighteenth birthday, arriving in the area with her mother. While on the beach, she meets this group of friends and immediately becomes smitten with Dick. A young, ambitious, and extremely witty psychiatrist, Dick appears to have it all, including the ego to match. Between his charm and his wife’s wealth, this couple by all appearances is a success. Of course, beneath the glamour, there lies scandal. Following an accidental death and a nervous breakdown with Nicole, their carefully constructed world begins to uncoil.

A pivotal moment in the narrative occurs at the end of part one. However, this meant I had to wade through pages about Dick exploring just how wonderful he is. Here’s an example:

“But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing their proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first  bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.”

Keep in mind that this work is supposed to be semi-autobiographical, with Dick representing Fitzgerald, while Nicole is based on Zelda. Maybe he’s being ironic here? Dick has no concerns with the advances from Rosemary, leading him to confess that he also loves her, despite the fact that she’s a teenager and that he is married. 

But the narcissism of this character is only part of the problem. There’s the matter of all the misogyny:

Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

If that’s not bad enough, later we get this:

“Like most women she liked to be told how she could feel.”

Yikes. Alright, so despite my annoyance, I continued forward because the second part of the novel uses extended flashback sequences to show how Dick and Nicole actually met. I was curious to see if perhaps I would feel more sympathetic towards Dick Diver if I had an understanding of his backstory. In fact, I think I actually grew to dislike him even more after learning his history. As a young and ambitious psychiatrist working out of Switzerland, Dick begins correspondence with Nicole, who happens, to be a patient at the hospital where he is employed. I realize that these were the days before ethics were truly cracked down, but seriously, this is so bad. For those that will be reading the book, I’ll spare some details about Nicole, only to say it is rather horrible and completely explains her fear and paranoia of men. It is during this section, that we see Dick’s womanizing on full display. In one scene, when Nicole accuses him of cheating with the daughter of another patient, he remembers that while he did kiss her, he rejected her merely out of sheer disinterest. Wow!

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the basis for Dick and Nicole Diver

In the third part of the novel, we get a role reversal. As Nicole recovers from her relapse, she becomes stronger and less dependent on her husband. Dick, on the other hand, turns to alcohol and begins a downward spiral. Meanwhile, Rosemary re-enters Dick’s life and the aborted romance from part one is resumed. However, Dick’s decline accelerates until he succumbs to his personal demons and the ending for the three main characters felt fitting.

While I’m being quite critical of this novel, there were actually many moments that I enjoyed. Fitzgerald was a brilliant writer, and within this work, he composes some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever encountered. I truly felt as though I had been transported to the French Riviera, Paris, and several of the other locales of this novel. He was certainly a writer filled with passion, and his descriptions of each character are so wonderfully realized. Fitzgerald was also quite clever, and I still question if maybe he was telling a larger morality tale and showing us that these bad choices have their consequences. It was fascinating to read the scenes set in the hospital during the early days of psychoanalysis. As a couple with the shifts in power, Dick and Nicole Diver were an interesting study of the Florence Nightingale effect. Also, this novel is a fitting end to the Jazz Age era, with the characters at one point sitting around a table and processing how life will never be the same again.

Tender as the Night is a raw, visceral, and emotion-laden work. F. Scott Fitzgerald did practice an act of courage by pouring his soul onto the page. It takes no prisoners, and nobody is spared here. The changes, both the small and the grand, that we witness in not just the lives of the Divers and Rosemary, but also in the other ex-pats who interact with them, are moving because they possess a dark, unsettling truth to them. 

“The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.


16 thoughts on “My Problems with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night

  1. Ha, you did better than me with this one – I abandoned it! Several of us read it as a review-along a year or so ago, and we were pretty unanimous in our dislike for it. It was for the reasons you give in the first part of your review – Dick/Fitzgerald’s narcissism and the overwhelming misogyny. Funnily enough, I chose some of the same quotes as you to illustrate those things. Here’s my review… well, mor of a rant than a review really…

    Glad you felt in the end that it had been worth persevering with!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoyed your rant/review, and it’s so crazy how we used some of the same quotes. Those were the moments I nearly stopped reading. Was it worth it? I’m still trying to decide. It’s a shame because there’s truly some beautiful writing but Dick Diver just made me too angry with his toxic behaviors.


  2. I bought this and read the first couple of lines and put it down to maybe try again later (that was a year or so ago) I don’t think I’ll bother and it can go in the charity shop bag, thanks for helping me with the decision!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: January 2023 Reading Wrap-Up – I Would Rather Be Reading

  4. I have not read this one yet, but I do know that I love the WAY Fitzgerald writes, but rarely WHAT he writes. So I read him for the breathtaking elegance of his prose, but the stories he tells tend not to really thrill me. Sounds like this will be another of those.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s